by Vernor Vinge
A Deepness in the Sky and its predecessor, A Fire Upon the Deep, are built on an interesting premise: Earth is in the slow zone -- a region of the galaxy where physical laws put tight constraints on technological advancement. Until humanity escapes from the slow zone, many of its long-term dreams are impossible: artificial intelligence can never work and spaceships are limited to about one third of the speed of light, for example. This technical premise leads to an interesting social premise: individual civilizations are doomed to eventually wipe themselves out or descend into barbarism. Thus, humanity is dependent on space travel, which in turn is too slow to allow a single civilization to span many star systems. The main population of space travelers is the Qeng Ho -- a loose federation of interstellar traders. The level of technology required to build and maintain starships requires the large industrial base of a planetary system. So the space travelers are dependent on sessile civilizations. This codependency is the status quo in the slow zone.
At the beginning of A Deepness in the Sky, two groups of humans arrive nearly simultaneously at the OnOff star -- a strange variable star that alternates between being nearly dark for 200 years and bright for 35. Circling OnOff is a single planet inhabited by a race of spider-like creatures -- the first living, technological alien civilization that humans have encountered. One of the arriving human fleets is Qeng Ho, hoping to make a profit from the Spiders. The other fleet, calling themselves the Emergents, has more sinister uses for the Spiders. The Emergents are interesting but thoroughly dislikable villains; they ambush the Qeng Ho and the resulting firefight nearly destroys both fleets. The survivors are forced to work together over subsequent decades until the Spiders have technology advanced enough to help them repair their ships. There are ethical dilemmas, constant plotting and counterplotting between the groups, and many civil rights abuses -- solid space opera material, in other words.
The Spiders are a well fleshed-out alien race -- Vinge is good at inventing these. Sherkaner Underhill, the main Spider character, is a renaissance Spider who almost single-handedly pulls his race into a modern technological age. The spiders' stories are told in a very anthropomorphized fashion, based on a clever plot device that I won't discuss since it would lead to spoilers. This desensitizes readers to the spiders' basic alienness, making the end of the book all the more surprising.
One of Vinge's major themes is time travel. Not the usual hokey "let's alter the past" variety of time travel, but the more plausible kind where people travel to the future by sleeping, traveling near light-speed, or being caught in a bobble (see Across Realtime). The idea is that once this kind of time travel has existed for a long time, there's always somebody around who's older than you think. This is one of the main sources of "wow" in Vinge's work; the other is his ability to think big.
Although I'm in awe of his ideas, I'm not always in awe of Vinge's writing. Fortunately, however, he keeps improving -- this is his best book to date. It was written after A Fire Upon the Deep, but takes place 7000 years into the future rather than 30,000. The books are only peripherally related and could be read in either order. Those who read Fire first will recognize a lot of irony in Deepness because the characters don't realize that they're stuck in the slow zone -- not only could Pham Nuwen's failed dream of a trading empire have easily been realized in the Beyond, but at the end of the book he resolves to explore in the wrong direction, leading him to the Unthinking Depths.
Vinge's strengths are that he tells a good story and that he has a deep understanding of computers and of their probable long-term effects on the human race. The plot is intricate, and the pacing issues that have been a problem in some of his earlier work are not as evident here -- this is a gripping space opera that caused about a week of late nights for me. Highly recommended.
copyright © 2000 John Regehr